Hume was a Scottish philosopher, economist, and historian who was
one of the most important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.
most famously see Humean philosophy as a thoroughgoing form of
skepticism, but many commentators have argued that the element
of naturalism has no less importance in Hume's philosophy. Hume
scholarship has tended to oscillate over time between those who
emphasize the sceptical side of Hume (such as Reid, Greene, and
the logical positivists), and those who emphasize the naturalist
side (such as Don Garrett, Norman Kemp Smith, Kerri Skinner, Barry
Stroud, and Galen Strawson).
was heavily influenced by empiricists John Locke and George Berkeley,
along with various Francophone writers such as Pierre Bayle, and
various figures on the Anglophone intellectual landscape such
as Isaac Newton, Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and Joseph
Hume was born on 26 April 1711 (Old style) in Edinburgh. From
time to time throughout his life, he was to spend time at his
family home at Ninewells by Chirnside, Berwickshire. He was sent
by his family to the University of Edinburgh at the unusually
early age of twelve (fourteen would have been more normal). At
first he considered a career in law, but came to have, in his
words, "an insurmountable aversion to everything but the
pursuits of Philosophy and general Learning; and while (my family)
fanceyed I was poring over Voet and Vinnius, Cicero and Vergil
were the Authors which I was secretly devouring." He had
little respect for professors, telling a friend in 1735 "there
is nothing to be learned from a Professor, which is not to be
met with in Books."
the age of eighteen, in 1729, Hume made a philosophical discovery
that opened up to him "a new scene of thought". He did
not recount what this was, but it seems likely to have been his
theory of causality - that our beliefs about cause and effect
depend on sentiment, custom and habit, and not upon reason or
abstract, timeless, general Laws of Nature.
1734, after a few months in commerce in Bristol, he retreated
to do self-study and conduct thought experiments on himself at
La Fleche in Anjou, France. During his four years there, he laid
out his life plan, as he wrote in My Own Life, resolving "to
make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to
maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object
as contemptible except the improvements of my talents in literature."
While there, he completed A Treatise of Human Nature at the age
many scholars today consider the Treatise to be Hume's most important
work and one of the most important books in the history of philosophy,
the public in Great Britain did not at first agree. Hume himself
described the (lack of) public reaction to the publication of
the Treatise in 1739–40 by writing that it "fell dead-born
from the press, without reaching such distinction as even to excite
a murmur among the zealots. But being naturally of a cheerful
and sanguine temper, I soon recovered from the blow and prosecuted
with great ardour my studies in the country".
he wrote An Abstract Of A book lately published; Entituled, A
Treatise Of human nature, &c. Wherein The chief argument of
that Book is farther illustrated and Explained. Without revealing
his authorship, he aimed to make his larger work more intelligible
by shortening it. Even this advertisement failed to enliven interest
in the Treatise.
the publication of Essays Moral and Political, in 1744 he applied
for the Chair of Ethics and Pneumatics (psychology) at Edinburgh
University but was rejected. During the Jacobite Rebellion of
1745 he tutored the Marquise of Annandale. It was then that he
started his great historical work The History of Great Britain
which would take fifteen years and run to over a million words,
to be published in six volumes in the period 1754 to 1762. In
1748 he served, in uniform, for three years as Secretary to General
St Clair writing his Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding
later published as An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.This
did not prove much more successful than the Treatise.
was charged with heresy but he was defended by his young clerical
friends who argued that as an atheist he lay outside the jurisdiction
of the Church. Despite his acquittal, and, possibly, due to the
opposition of Thomas Reid of Aberdeen who, that year, launched
a telling Christian critique of his metaphysics, Hume failed to
gain the Chair of Philosophy at Glasgow. It was in 1752, as he
wrote in My Own Life, that "the Faculty of Advocates chose
me their Librarian, an office from which I received little or
no emolument, but which gave me the command of a large library."
It was this resource that enabled him to continue his historical
research for his History.
achieved great literary fame as an essayist and historian. His
enormous History of Great Britain from the Saxon kingdoms to the
Glorious Revolution was a best-seller in its day. In it, Hume
presented political man as a creature of habit, with a disposition
to submit quietly to established government unless confronted
by uncertain circumstances. In his view, only religious difference
could deflect men from their everyday lives to think about political
early essay Of Superstition and Religion laid the foundations
for nearly all secular thinking about the history of religion.
Critics of religion during Hume's time needed to express themselves
cautiously. Less than 15 years before Hume was born, 18-year-old
college student Thomas Aikenhead was put on trial for saying openly
that he thought Christianity was nonsense, was convicted and hanged
for blasphemy. Hume followed the common practice of expressing
his views obliquely, through characters in dialogues. Hume did
not acknowledge authorship of Treatise until the year of his death,
essays Of Suicide, and Of the Immortality of the Soul and his
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were held from publication
until after his death (published 1778 and 1779, respectively),
and they still bore neither author's nor publisher's name. So
masterful was Hume in disguising his own views that debate continues
to this day over whether Hume was actually a deist or an atheist.
Regardless, in his own time Hume's alleged atheism caused him
to be passed over for many positions.
is an old (and probably false) story about David Hume and his
supposed atheism. In the story, Hume falls off his horse into
a pool of mud and is slipping in it, when an old and pious lady
walks past. When she sees the renowned atheist flapping about
for his life, she walks to the edge and looks at him. Hume urges
the lady to pass him a stick to pull him out, but she refuses
unless he declare his devotion to God Almighty. Hume accedes and
the lady helps him out.
1763 to 1765 Hume was Secretary to Lord Hertford in Paris, where
he was admired by Voltaire and lionised by the ladies in society.
He made friends with and, later, fell out with Rousseau. He wrote
of his Paris life "I really wish often for the plain roughness
of the The Poker Club of Edinburgh . . . to correct and qualify
so much luciousness." For a year from 1767, Hume held the
appointment of Under Secretary of State for the Northern Department.
In 1768 he settled in Edinburgh. Attention to Hume's philosophical
works grew after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant credited
Hume with awakening him from "dogmatic slumbers" (circa
1770) and from then onwards he gained the recognition that he
had craved all his life.
Boswell visited Hume a few weeks before his death. Hume told him
that he sincerely believed it a "most unreasonable fancy"
that there might be life after death. Hume wrote his own epitaph:"Born
1711, Died [----]. Leaving it to posterity to add the rest."
It is engraved with the year of his death 1776 on the "simple
Roman tomb" which he prescribed, and which stands, as he
wished it, on the Eastern slope of the Calton Hill overlooking
his home in the New Town of Edinburgh at No. 1 St David’s
Though Hume wrote in the 18th century, his work seems still uncommonly
relevant in the philosophical disputes of today compared to that
of his contemporaries. A summary of some of Hume's most influential
work in philosophy might include the following:
Hume believes that all human knowledge comes to us through our
senses. Our perceptions, as he called them, can be divided into
two categories: ideas and impressions. He defines these terms
thus in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding: "By
the term impression, then, I mean all our more lively perceptions,
when we hear, or see, or feel, or love, or hate, or desire, or
will. And impressions are distinguished from ideas, which are
the less lively perceptions, of which we are conscious, when we
reflect on any of those sensations or movements above mentioned."
further specifies ideas, saying, "It seems a proposition,
which will not admit of much dispute, that all our ideas are nothing
but copies of our impressions, or, in other words, that it is
impossible for us to think of anything, which we have not antecedently
felt, either by our external or internal senses." This forms
an important aspect of Hume's skepticism, for he says that we
cannot be certain a thing, such as God, a soul, or a self, exists
unless we can point out the impression from which the idea of
the thing is derived.
problem of causation
When one event continually follows after another, most people
think that a connection between the two events makes the second
event follow from the first (post hoc ergo propter hoc). Hume
challenged this belief in the first book of his Treatise of Human
Nature and later in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
He noted that although we do perceive the one event following
the other, we do not perceive any necessary connection between
the two. And according to his skeptical epistemology, we can only
trust the knowledge that we acquire from our perceptions.
asserted that our idea of causation consists of little more than
expectation for certain events to result after other events that
precede them. Such a lean conception robs causation of all its
force, and some later Humeans like Bertrand Russell have dismissed
the notion of causation altogether as something akin to superstition.
But this defies common sense, thereby creating the problem of
causation – what justifies our belief in a causal connection
and what kind of connection can we have knowledge of? –
a problem which has no accepted solution.
held that we (and other animals) have an instinctive belief in
causation based on the development of habits in our nervous system,
a belief that we cannot eliminate, but which we cannot prove true
through any argument, deductive or inductive, just as is the case
with regard to our belief in the reality of the external world.
problem of induction
Most of us think that the past acts as a reliable guide to the
future. For example, physicists' laws of planetary orbits work
for describing past planetary behavior, so we presume that they
will work for describing future planetary behavior as well. But
how can we justify this presumption – the principle of induction?
Hume suggested two possible justifications and rejected them both:
first justification states that, as a matter of logical necessity,
the future must resemble the past. But, Hume pointed out, we can
conceive of a chaotic, erratic world where the future has nothing
to do with the past – or, more tamely, a world just like
ours right up until the present, at which point things change
completely. So nothing makes the principle of induction logically
second justification, more modestly, appeals only to the past
reliability of induction – it has always worked before,
so it will probably continue to work. But, Hume pointed out, this
justification uses circular reasoning, justifying induction by
an appeal that requires induction to gain any force.
bundle theory of the self
We tend to think that we are the same person we were five years
ago. Though we've changed in many respects, the same person appears
present as was present then. We might start thinking about which
features can be changed without changing the underlying self.
Hume, however, denies that there is a distinction between the
various features of a person and the mysterious self that supposedly
bears those features. After all, Hume pointed out, when you start
introspecting, you notice a bunch of thoughts and feelings and
perceptions and such, but you never perceive any substance you
could call "the self". So as far as we can tell, Hume
concludes, there is nothing to the self over and above a big,
fleeting bundle of perceptions.
in particular that, on Hume's view, these perceptions do not belong
to anything. Rather, Hume compares the soul to a commonwealth,
which retains its identity not by virtue of some enduring core
substance, but by being composed of many different, related, and
yet constantly changing elements. The question of personal identity
then becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion of
one's personal experience. (Note that in the Appendix to the Treatise,
Hume said mysteriously that he was dissatisfied with his account
of the self, and yet he never returned to the issue!)
reason: instrumentalism and nihilism
Most of us find some behaviors more reasonable than others. Eating
aluminum foil, for example, seems to have something unreasonable
about it. But Hume denied that reason has any important role in
motivating or discouraging behavior. After all, reason is just
a sort of calculator of concepts and experience. What ultimately
matters, Hume said, is how we feel about the behavior.
work is now associated with the doctrine of instrumentalism, which
states that an action is reasonable if and only if it serves the
agent's goals and desires, whatever they be. Reason can enter
the picture only as a lackey, informing the agent of useful facts
concerning which actions will serve his goals and desires, but
never deigning to tell the agent which goals and desires he should
have. So, if you want to eat aluminum foil, reason will tell you
where to find the stuff, and there's nothing unreasonable about
eating it or even wanting to do so (unless, of course, one has
a stronger desire for health or the appearance of sensibility).
however, many commentators argue that Hume actually went a step
further to nihilism and said there's nothing unreasonable about
deliberately frustrating your own goals and desires ("I want
to eat aluminum foil, so let me wire my mouth shut"). Such
behavior would surely be highly irregular, granting reason no
role at all, but it would not be contrary to reason, which is
important to make judgments in this domain.
based ethical theory
Hume first discusses ethics in A Treatise of Human Nature. He
later extracts and expounds upon the ideas he proposed there in
a shorter essay entitled An Enquiry Concerning the Principles
of Morals. Hume's approach in the Enquiry is fundamentally an
empirical one. Instead of telling us how morality ought to operate,
he proports to tell us how we do actually make moral judgments.
providing us with various examples, he comes to the conclusion
that most if not all of the behaviors we approve of increase public
utility. Does this then mean that we make moral judgments on self-interest
alone? Unlike his fellow empiricist Thomas Hobbes, Hume argues
that this is not in fact the case. In addition to considerations
of self-interest, he asserts, we are swayed by our sympathies
for our fellow men. Hume also defends this sentiment based theory
of morality by claiming that we could never make moral judgments
based on reason alone.
reason deals with facts and draws conclusions from them, but,
all else being equal, it could not lead us to choose one option
over the other; only our natural sentiments can do this. This
argument against founding morality on reason is now one in the
stable of moral anti-realist arguments. As Humean philosopher
John Mackie put it, for sheer facts about the world to be intrinsically
motivating as far as morality goes, they would have to be very
weird facts. Thus we have every reason not to believe in them.
Free will versus determinism
Just about everyone has noticed the apparent conflict between
free will and determinism – if your actions were determined
to happen billions of years ago, then how can they be up to you?
But Hume noted another conflict, one that turned the problem of
free will into a full-fledged dilemma: free will is incompatible
with indeterminism. Imagine that your actions are not determined
by what events came before. Then your actions are, it seems, completely
and most importantly for Hume, they are not determined by your
character – your desires, your preferences, your values,
etc. How can we hold someone responsible for an action that did
not result from his character? How can we hold someone responsible
for an action that randomly occurred? Free will seems to require
determinism, because otherwise, the agent and the action wouldn't
be connected in the way required of freely chosen actions.
now, nearly everyone believes in free will, free will seems inconsistent
with determinism, and free will seems to require determinism.
Hume's view is that human behavior, like everything else, is caused,
and therefore holding people responsible for their actions should
focus on rewarding them or punishing them in such a way that they
will try to do what is morally desirable and will try to avoid
doing what is morally reprehensible. (See also Compatibilism.)
Hume noted that many writers talk about what ought to be on the
basis of statements about what is (is-ought problem). But there
seems to be a big difference between descriptive statements (what
is) and prescriptive statements (what ought to be). Hume calls
for writers to be on their guard against changing the subject
in this way without giving an explanation of how the ought-statements
are supposed to follow from the is-statements. But how exactly
can you derive an 'ought' from an 'is'?
question, prompted by Hume's small paragraph, has become one of
the central questions of ethical theory, and Hume is usually assigned
the position that such a derivation is impossible. (Others interpret
Hume as saying not that one cannot go from a factual statement
to an ethical statement, but that one cannot do so without going
through human nature, that is, without paying attention to human
sentiments.) Hume is probably one of the first writers to make
the distinction between normative (what ought to be) and positive
(what is) statements, which is so prevalent in social science
and moral philosophy. G. E. Moore defended a similar position
with his "open question argument", intending to refute
any identification of moral properties with natural properties—the
so-called "naturalistic fallacy".
It was probably Hume who, along with his fellow members of the
Scottish Enlightenment, first advanced the idea that the explanation
of moral principles is to be sought in the utility they tend to
promote. Hume's role is not to be overstated, of course; it was
his countryman Francis Hutcheson who coined the utilitarian slogan
"greatest happiness for the greatest numbers". But it
was from reading Hume's Treatise that Jeremy Bentham first felt
the force of a utilitarian system: he "felt as if scales
had fallen from [his] eyes". Nevertheless, Hume's proto-utilitarianism
is a peculiar one from our perspective. He doesn't think that
the aggregation of cardinal units of utility provides a formula
for arriving at moral truth.
the contrary, Hume was a moral sentimentalist and, as such, thought
that moral principles could not be intellectually justified. Some
principles simply appeal to us and others don't; and the reason
why utilitarian moral principles do appeal to us is that they
promote our interests and those of our fellows, with whom we sympathize.
Humans are hard-wired to approve of things that help society –
public utility. Hume used this insight to explain how we evaluate
a wide array of phenomena, ranging from social institutions and
government policies to character traits and talents.
problem of miracles
One way to support a religion is by appeal to miracles. But Hume
argued that, at minimum, miracles could never give religion much
support. There are several arguments suggested by Hume's essay,
all of which turn on his conception of a miracle: namely, a violation
of the laws of nature by God. One argument claims that it's impossible
to violate the laws of nature. Another claims that human testimony
could never be reliable enough to countermand the evidence we
have for the laws of nature. The weakest and most defensible claims
that, due to the strong evidence we have for the laws of nature,
any miracle claim is in trouble from the start, and needs strong
supporting evidence to defeat our initial presumptions. In a slogan,
extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
point has been most applied to the question of the resurrection
of Jesus, where Hume would no doubt ask, "Which is more likely
– that a man rose from the dead or that this testimony is
mistaken in some way?" Or, more blandly, "Which is more
likely – that Uri Geller can really bend spoons with his
mind or that there is some trick going on?" This is somewhat
similar to Occam's Razor. This argument is the backbone of the
skeptic's movement and a live issue for historians of religion.
One of the oldest and most popular arguments for the existence
of God is the design argument – that all the order and 'purpose'
in the world bespeaks a divine origin. Hume gave the classic criticism
of the design argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
and An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and though the issue
is far from dead, many are convinced that Hume killed the argument
for good. Here are some of his points:
For the design argument to be feasible, it must be true that order
and purpose are observed only when they result from design. But
order is observed regularly, resulting from presumably mindless
processes like snowflake or crystal generation. Design accounts
for only a tiny part of our experience with order and 'purpose'.
2. Furthermore, the design argument is based on an incomplete
analogy: because of our experience with objects, we can recognise
human-designed ones, comparing for example a pile of stones and
a brick wall. But in order to point to a designed Universe, we
would need to have an experience of a range of different universes.
As we only experience one, the analogy cannot be applied.
3. Even if the design argument is completely successful, it could
not (in and of itself) establish a robust theism; one could easily
reach the conclusion that the universe's configuration is the
result of some morally ambiguous, possibly unintelligent agent
or agents whose method bears only a remote similarity to human
4. If a well-ordered natural world requires a special designer,
then God's mind (being so well-ordered) also requires a special
designer. And then this designer would likewise need a designer,
and so on ad infinitum. We could respond by resting content with
an inexplicably self-ordered divine mind; but then why not rest
content with an inexplicably self-ordered natural world?
5. Often, what appears to be purpose, where it looks like object
X has feature F in order to secure some outcome O, is better explained
by a filtering process: that is, object X wouldn't be around did
it not possess feature F, and outcome O is only interesting to
us as a human projection of goals onto nature. This mechanical
explanation of teleology anticipated natural selection. (see also
and political theory
Many regard David Hume as a political conservative, sometimes
calling him the first conservative philosopher. He expressed suspicion
of attempts to reform society in ways that departed from long-established
custom, and he counselled people not to resist their governments
except in cases of the most egregious tyranny. However, he resisted
aligning himself with either of Britain's two political parties,
the Whigs and the Tories, and he believed that we should try to
balance our demands for liberty with the need for strong authority,
without sacrificing either.
supported liberty of the press, and was sympathetic to democracy,
when suitably constrained. It has been argued that he was a major
inspiration for James Madison's writings, and the Federalist No.
10 in particular. He was also, in general, an optimist about social
progress, believing that, thanks to the economic development that
comes with the expansion of trade, societies progress from a state
of "barbarism" to one of "civilisation". Civilised
societies are open, peaceful and sociable, and their citizens
are as a result much happier. It is therefore not fair to characterise
him, as Leslie Stephen did, as favouring "that stagnation
which is the natural ideal of a skeptic". (Leslie Stephen,
History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols.
(London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1876), vol. 2, 185.)
strongly pragmatic, Hume produced an essay titled Idea of a Perfect
Commonwealth, where he detailed what any reforms should seek to
achieve. Strong features for the time included a strict separation
of powers, decentralisation, extending the franchise to anyone
who held property of value and limiting the power of the clergy.
The Swiss militia system was proposed as the best form of protection.
Elections were to take place on an annual basis and representatives
were to be unpaid, which was aimed at keeping the interests of
constituents in the minds of politicians.
to economic thought
Through his discussions on politics, Hume developed many ideas
that are prevalent in the field of economics. This includes ideas
on private property, inflation, and foreign trade.
idea on private property is special—private property was
not a natural right, but is justified since it is a limited good.
If all goods were unlimited and available freely, then private
property would not be justified, but instead becomes an “idle
ceremonial”. Hume also believed in unequal distribution
of property, since perfect equality would destroy the ideas of
thrift and industry, which leads to impoverishment.
did not believe that foreign trade produced specie, but considered
trade a stimulus for a country’s economic growth. He did
not consider the volume of world trade as fixed because countries
can feed off their neighbor’s wealth, being part of a “prosperous
community”. The fall in foreign demand is not that fatal,
because in the long run, a country cannot preserve a leading trading
was among the first to develop automatic price-specie flow, an
idea that contrasts the mercantile system. Simply put, when a
country increases its in-flow of gold, this in-flow of gold will
result in price inflation, and then price inflation will force
out countries from trading that would have traded before the inflation.
This results in a decrease of the in-flow of gold in the long-run.
also proposed a theory of beneficial inflation. He believed that
increasing the money supply would raise production in the short
run. This phenomenon was caused by a gap between the increase
in the money supply and that of the price level. The result is
that prices will not rise at first and may not rise at all. This
theory was later developed by John Maynard Keynes.